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Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation review: lacking character

by Timothy J. Seppala, Nov 09, 2012 12:00pm PST

Late into sequence two of Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation, one of the mission subtitles is "Do the mentor's dirty work." Replace "dirty" with "busy" and you have the entire Liberation experience. The opening scene sees protagonist and first female assassin Aveline chasing a chicken as a child. Then, she falls asleep and wakes up as an adult and starts killing guards, pick pocketing, and infiltrating cocktail parties. Why? Like the rest of the narrative, it's never made particularly clear.

Players knew why Ezio was out for vengeance in Assassin's Creed 2 through Revelations. Liberation alludes to a few plot points, but by and large the narrative takes the backseat to gameplay. This wouldn't be much of a problem if the gameplay was solid enough to stand on its own, but missions and exploring don't feel very inspired. Most task the player with killing X soldiers or dreadful follow-the-target-but-don't-get-caught directives. Some are a bit more elaborate. On paper, starting a riot or setting up an elaborate ambush by blocking off a town square and funneling Spanish soldiers into a trap sounds awesome. Starting a riot is distilled to approaching several burly men in the town square and pressing a button and watching them run off to pick fights. Designing an ambush involves knocking diminutive water towers off rooftops and shooting a powder keg. Because Liberation lacks a sense of urgency or direction though, objectives never elevate beyond feeling like rote chores.

Each historically important setting in the franchise has felt like a character in and of itself. Liberation's version of pre-purchase Louisiana and surrounding swamp feel like Brown City No. 3, not the vibrant settings they could have been. Parkouring around the world loses much of its thrill because movement lacks the fluidity the series is known for. Frame rate drops at a moment's notice, audio often lags behind animation, and Aveline's grunts and exhales as she clambers from tree limb to rooftop and back again cycle through several low-fi voice samples over and over. Yes, at a passing glance, it looks like an Assassin's Creed game, but the wheels fall off once it's in motion.

Technical aspects are the real killer. Voices in particular sound like they were recorded in an empty Kleenex box, but overall, sound is thin and overly compressed. Enemy AI is just as weak. One mission told me to silently eliminate a handful of guards, each at a separate post. Each was surrounded by means to suit the task be it a pile of straw to hide in or a series of ledges from which to pounce. I targeted the enemy below but biffed the jump, instead landing beside him. Even then, he never knew I was there until I drove a blade into his neck.

Glimmers of depth never turned out to be anything more than mirages. Both Liberation's characters and systems lack anything beyond their surface value. When an ally professed his love for Aveline as a last ditch effort to stop her from leaving, it rang hollow. Sure he'd spoken with her in mission-prefacing cutscenes but there was never any indication before this that he was anything more than a friend. Like so much else in the narrative, that familiarity was assumed. It always felt like I'd missed some key plot point or event because I wasn't paying attention, but the reality is it often didn't exist in the first place. Important characters come and go spouting pithy line after pithy line and unlike, say, Leonardo da Vinci in the Ezio-led games, there was never a point where I was looking forward to meeting someone in particular because the characters lack, well, character.

City building and restoration helped give a sense of ownership in past Assassin's Creed games, but the closest Liberation comes to it is repairing what amount to closets scattered about the main city. The closets allow Aveline to change into one of three outfits for the mission at hand: lady, slave, and assassin. In theory, they should each have their own strengths, limitations, and strategies but they don't. Lady limits Aveline's movements, keeping her to the streets like an affluent pedestrian while slave and assassin garb only seem to differ on a superficial level. One mission or another will require a change of clothes, mostly for infiltrating an event or blending in, but that's the extent of it.

This inconsistency filters down to Liberation's implementation of Vita specific features, as well. Once, I had to paddle a canoe through the swamp mimicking strokes of an oar with my finger on the rear touchpad. The next time I was in a canoe, it's almost as if the game realized this was a bad idea and took control out of my hands, no pun intended. I can't say this bothered me one bit given how difficult it is to hold the Vita, guide the canoe's direction with one thumb on the left analog stick, and use my right index middle finger to manipulate the "oars." The touch interface works best when implemented in ways that make sense. Targeting foes by tapping on them works much better than using the left bumper and swapping weapons with the touch menu is awesome.

Opening letters by pinching the console's front and rear touchscreens while pulling to the left? Not so much. Being required to point the rear camera at a bright light to see some hidden object on the letter was even worse. Sitting in a coffee shop with my netbook open, I cranked the brightness of my display on white screen and set the Vita in front of it. No dice. Frustrated and tired of looking like an idiot while pointing the console at this light and that, I set it down on the table. I lifted it up, the camera recognized the light and I "saw" the clue. I tried this several times and it inexplicably worked each time.

While its themes of male powerlessness are a change of pace in video games, they're hamstrung by Liberation's lack of unifying vision. It's a shame so much of it feels like a missed opportunity because requisite pieces for a great game are there, but they're just not in the right order. Liberation's most damnable offense is it feels inert, the game itself has a common trait with its main character: a clear lack of motivation.


This Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation review was based on a digital retail version of the game provided by the publisher.





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